In 1920, Roger Baldwin, founder of the national ACLU, traveled throughout the U.S. in search of civil libertarians willing to join his fight for civil rights. Baldwin met with members of a local Youngstown group called the Youngstown Workers Defense League, which led to the Youngstown chapter becoming one of the fifteen original ACLU affiliate in 1921.
The first chapters consisted of a handful of dedicated members who utilized their own resources and contributed their time, telephones, offices, houses, and personal funds to the organization. For the first few decades the chapters acted primarily as liaisons to bring local civil rights problems to the attention of the national ACLU.
The newly-established ACLU of Youngstown quickly made the ACLU a household name through its defense of the controversial groups the Communist Party USA and the Ku Klux Klan. From its inception, the Youngstown chapter followed its creed of defending the Bill of Rights, even for unpopular groups.
The ACLU’s presence in Ohio was further expanded when affiliates in Cleveland and Cincinnati joined Youngstown in 1922, becoming involved in highly controversial cases born out of the growing threat of communism. The Ohio League for Constitutional Rights in Columbus joined forces with the three Ohio affiliates in 1935, working in cooperation with the ACLU on issues of censorship, teachers’ rights to political activity, free speech, and other rights guaranteed by Constitutional law.
McCarthyism in the 1950’s saw an upsurge in the activity of civil libertarians across Ohio, and chapters in Yellow Springs, Akron, Oberlin, Toledo, and Dayton were established. The existing chapters in Cleveland, Columbus, and Youngstown were resurrected and the statewide ACLU of Ohio was born, led by Dr. Edwin Brown (executive director), Jack Day, Oscar Steiner, and James Paradise.
The ACLU of Ohio continued to grow in the following years, gradually taking the shape of the statewide organization it is today. For a more detailed history of the early years of the ACLU of Ohio, download A History of ACLU in Ohio by Betsy Leis.
Resources for historians and researchers
Listen to and read ACLU founder Roger Baldwin’s “This I Believe” essay, originally broadcast in the 1950’s